The last thing I wanted to do at 4 p.m. on a Tuesday afternoon was see Jonathan, which premiered last week at the Tribeca Film Festival. Jonathan has been labeled a “thriller,” which is my least favorite genre, and stars Ansel Elgort, who is my least favorite actor. In fact, it technically stars two Ansel Elgorts, because he plays twins trapped in the same body. It would be funny to make me go, my editor Clover Hope said. It was not.
Although Ansel Elgort and I have a strained history, which includes him following several of my coworkers on Twitter and not me, I really did go into this film with an open mind. Unfortunately, by the time I arrived at the theater for a public screening of Jonathan, the only available seats left were in the front row on the righthand side of the theater. Because of my position in the theater, for the duration of the film my head was craned up and to the left, resulting in a significant amount of physical discomfort that supplemented the already significant emotional toll that this film took on me. This was technically my fault, but if you really think about it, no it wasn’t. It was Ansel’s fault.
The situation went downhill from there.
Jonathan was directed by Bill Oliver, a first-time director, and also stars Patricia Clarkson and Suki Waterhouse. “I don’t like reading scripts that much,” Elgort told Variety on his decision to star in the small-budget film. “I like doing other things, like working on music, but I started looking at it and I usually read the first five pages and then throw them away. This one was different.” Waterhouse described the movie as “a Black Mirror episode,” which is somewhat accurate, if incredibly generous. The only way I know how to explain it is to tell you the entire plot, so please be warned that spoilers lie ahead.
Jonathan is about two Manhattan-dwelling brothers who share the same body. “Jonathan,” a solitary nerd who wants to be an architect, controls the hairless body of Ansel from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m., while “John,” a cool boy who wears flannels and says “man” a lot, lives from 7 p.m. to 7 a.m. We learn that theirs is an extremely rare but real medical condition discovered by Dr. Nina Mariman, who is played by Patricia Clarkson. We hear nowhere near enough about this, but we are shown a science article to prove that she isn’t making it up. Dork Jonathan and Cool John never get to hang out, obviously, but they leave each other video messages each day from their weird sterile apartment to catch each other up on what they missed. John is like, “Hey, man, you should have sex, here I am in my casual ruffled outfit!” Jonathan is like, “I did the laundry and picked up groceries, please clean up after yourself, my hair is parted in the middle.”
So here’s what happens: Dork Jonathan and Cool John are both beset by limitations as a result of the fact that they are only alive for 12 hours per day, with four-ish of those hours reserved for sleeping. Dork Jonathan can’t work at his architecture firm more than part-time, while Cool John barely gets sunlight and presumably does not have the full social life he is built for. Dork Jonathan keeps feeling tired, so he is like, what the heck is my brother doing to our body!? Naturally, he then pays a private investigator, played by Matt Bomer, to follow Cool John around. Matt Bomer discovers that Cool John has a girlfriend—Elena, played by Suki Waterhouse. Dork Jonathan is furious. I am also furious.
Elena, who says everything with a sexy voice and whose facial expression rests at a strange combination of placid and confused, has no visible personality or purpose aside from her role as a wedge between brothers. To emphasize her meaninglessness, sometimes her face is halfway out of frame. Having a girlfriend is against the Rules, we learn. Dork Jonathan visits Elena and is like, we’re brothers who share a body and you can’t see John anymore! Elena is like, oh my god, you are crazy! Then Cool John freaks out and stops leaving Dork Jonathan video messages, so Dork Jonathan starts hanging out with Elena because he is lonely and I guess also a sociopath. It’s never quite explained why Elena is suddenly chill with having sex with crazy brain twins, or why she is equally happy hanging out with a gregarious bro and a robotic virgin. When Dork Jonathan and Elena share their first deeply uncomfortable onscreen kiss, Dork Jonathan breathes heavily through his sinuses and I inadvertently hissed through my teeth.
If Jonathan was meant as a vehicle to flex Elgort’s acting skills, that vehicle sputtered along for a moment at 15 mph and then screeched to a halt and rolled slowly down a hill into the ocean. “Wooden” is a word that continually came to mind. I kept imagining plot lines that would make the stakes feel higher—like, maybe Patricia Clarkson is lying and just convinced one guy that there are two of him!—but the effect throughout remained lightly depressing and interminably dull. At around the hour mark, I was wishing desperately for the movie to end. Unfortunately, it did not. When Cool John finds out about Jonathan and Elena, he requests that Patricia Clarkson have him “removed” from their brain and, when rebuffed, starts attempting suicide. “John’s demons are as intense as his passions” is a line Patricia Clarkson is forced to say in this film.
John continues to try to kill himself for a lengthy period of time, but then Patricia Clarkson finds out that John is “thriving” and Jonathan is retreating, meaning Jonathan is getting less and less time alive in their body and will eventually disappear. Jonathan doesn’t want to die, but I do not personally feel sad about it. They start switching back and forth more quickly, until Dork Jonathan only has a few moments in Ansel’s body at one time. Cool Jonathan puts them in a car to the airport, for some reason, and then Dork Jonathan wakes up and is like, driver, pull over, I must run into the sea. With the cab driver serving as their translator, the brothers say goodbye, at which point I was like, thank god, no offense, but Cool Jonathan was better.
The moral of this film, if there is one, is that you cannot have two guys in one body, and that Patricia Clarkson should be getting better roles. Another takeaway is that I will probably never be able to watch another movie starring Ansel Elgort. This, like the untimely death of Dork Jonathan, does not feel like much of a loss.